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Transient No More, Kimbrel Lands on the North Side


Our long national nightmare is over. Craig Kimbrel is no longer a closer without a home, as the Chicago Cubs signed him earlier this week to a three-year deal worth $43 Million, with a club option in 2022. With the MLB draft concluding, Kimbrel finally became an unrestricted free-agent - no longer tied to the draft-pick compensation - so it was no surprise when he was locked up shortly after.

However, it was a small surprise that it was the Cubs who ended the Kimbrel-sweepstakes, not because of a lack of need - Chicago's bullpen is the owner of a 4.26 xFIP and 12 blown saves - but rather because GM Theo Epstein had previously plead financial inflexibility. Then Ben Zobrist - and his $12.5 million salary - left the team for personal reasons, in part allowing the purse-strings to be loosened in the Windy City.

Now Kimbrel has found a home and the Cubs have found their bullpen-savior. Besides having more proof that players should not be allowed to give themselves nicknames, what lies in store for all of the resolute fantasy owners who drafted "Filthy Craig"  at an average NFBC ADP of 96?

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Release the Kraken

Numbers in the bank. That's what the Cubs - and his fantasy owners - are getting, as Kimbrel has been one of the most consistent sources of production in baseball since he arrived in 2011. Youngest to reach 300 saves, Kimbrel also carries elite ratios - a career 0.91 WHIP and 1.92 ERA - as well as putting the K in Kraken with a lifetime 14.67 K/9.

Consistent saves, K's, and ratios. These are all the things the Cubs bullpen has lacked, as unsurprisingly, the combination of Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek - and all their merry friends besides - have combined for only 14 Saves in 26 opportunities, giving the Cubs the 3rd-most blown saves in baseball. But those dark days are seemingly over for now, and Strop and Cishek can be safely jettisoned with Kimbrel being the only Cub to now own in relief.

And what a relief it will be if the Cubs get the same Craig Kimbrel who's coming off a 2018 season that saw him save 42 games in 47 opportunities, with 92 K in 62 innings. Not everything is sunshine and roses though, as Kimbrel had a thoroughly awful October for the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox, posting a 5.90 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, with three blown saves and a relatively tiny 8.43 K/9. But the word is that Kimbrel was tipping his pitches - something that was brought to the attention of manager Alex Cora by none other than former Red Sox,  Eric Gagne, and supposedly corrected.

Kimbrel couldn't have come at a better time, because while the Cubs are currently tied for first place in the NL Central - prior to winning three of their last four - they had lost eight of their last 10, and 11 of the last 18. With Kimbrel now occupying the back of their bullpen, the Cubs have their eyes set on a World Series run.

 

The Reality For Fantasy

Putting the Cubs and their World Series aspirations aside, what about what's truly important? How much Will Craig Kimbrel now contribute to the world of fantasy baseball? The Cubs have 100 games left and have said that Kimbrel should be up in majors in two to three weeks - which would likely put him back during the homestand of June 20 - 27, when the Cubs will have back-to-back four-game sets with the Mets and Braves.

During the era of Strop/Chisek/misc, the Cubs had a save opportunity every 2.4 games, with the aforementioned committee converting 14 in 62 games. If we assume that Kimbrel is available for around 85 of the Cub's remaining 100 games, then a save opportunity every 2.4 games would see him getting around 42 Save opportunities the rest of the way. That seems a little aggressive, given that previous save opportunities aren't necessarily an accurate predictor of future opportunities - but as a rough estimator, it's not crazy to think that Kimbrel will get around 30 -35 game appearances before the season is through - which is backed up by the rest-of-season projections from Steamer, FG Depth Charts, and the BAT; all of whom project Kimbrel to appear in 34 - 35 games.

Over his career, Kimbrel has had save-opportunities in around 65% of the games in which he has appeared, with a 90% average conversion rate. Extrapolated all out, that gives Kimbrel a rough estimate of 22 Save opportunities in 2019, of which he'd convert 19-20. Which is once again, right in line with the projection systems, as Steamer - the only one of the three to project Saves - projects him for 19 Saves in 2019.

If given the ratios from last year, Kimbrel then projects for:

35 IP - 54K - 2.75 ERA - 0.99 WHIP - 19 SV

Those are all fine numbers, for sure. But seeing as he was on average, the ninth closer off the board in NFBC drafts, his owners were certainly hoping for more. However, that is all now moot because production is production, and at those numbers, Kimbrel is projected as a back of the top-10 closer, and those aren't just lying around on the wire.

 

But What If He Throws Harder?

While Kimbrel is a likely lock to be a top-10 closer the rest of the way, given his track record and that he's playing on a contender, top-three might be on the board as well. That path will either require a large uptick in the amount of save opportunities he is afforded or a large uptick in skills/performance. Given he cannot control the former, what could lead to an increase in the latter?

In six of his eight full years in the majors, Kimbrel's K% has stayed in the range of 36 - 41%, with an average of 38.6%. In the other 2 years, he had a 50% K-rate. One was in 2012, when he had 116 K in 62 2/3 IP. The other was in 2017 - just two years ago - when he struck out 126 over 69 IP. The difference? Kimbrel's moneymaker, the four-seamer, has always averaged around 97.1 mph - and can run up to 101 - and has stayed remarkably consist for the entirety of his career. Except in 2017, when it jumped for the first and only time, up to an average of 98.4 mph. With his heater running away from right-handers and in on lefties, Kimbrel got 20% more movement across the horizontal axis, with - when added to the velocity bump - helped increase his K-rate on the pitch (when compared to 2018's slower speeds) from 36.2% to 47.9%. And it wasn't just the four-seamer whose speed increased; his primary breaking pitch - the knuckle-curve -was thrown a 1mph faster as well, with its vertical movement decreasing by 10%. This tighter movement actually decreased the K-rate on the pitch by two points over 2o18's slower pitch but spiked the groundball-rate  -with it being 33 points higher at the higher velocity, up at an elite 75%.

For Kimbrel owners, you should feel pretty safe about what you're getting from him. But given that he's has missed a third of the season and is presumably well-rested, perhaps he will dial the velocity on his pitches back up to 2017's levels - and if he does, then 2017's skills may come with him. A savvy owner should keep an eye on his velocity levels as he comes back, to check if the averages start ticking up towards 98mph. If that's the case, then it might be time to either hold on to the Kimbrel you have...Or try to acquire the one that you don't.

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